CHAPTER 1: RETURN TO OBOLENSK
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers above his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.
Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
He is thin, and bowed over a little, with a pointed elfin face, and fingers slightly bent and swollen from the brucellosis he acquired from his research many years ago. But his clear, bright blue eyes are fierce with intelligence and will. When I first see him, he is sitting with his son-in-law on a bench by the customs entrance in the Moscow airport, clutching a bouquet of purple hyacinths. They have been waiting a long time -- visa problems with my fifteen-year-old son have nearly kept us from entering the country. But after nearly three years of almost daily e-mails, there he is, Igor V. Domaradskij, my co-author, correspondent, and friend, whom I have never met before.
He is also perhaps the world's leading expert on Yersinia pestis, the germ that causes plague. It is because of plague that I have come from America to see him.
In the fall of 1999, while writing an article on Soviet bioweapons, I was tracking a mysterious and disturbing lead. I had learned that one of the principal designers of the Soviet bioweapons program was a man named Zhdanov. His name was reported in a U.S. publication as Vladimir Zhdanov. But the similarity of the name to Victor M. Zhdanov, a world-famous virologist and the instigator of the successful World Health Organization's smallpox eradication program, made me uneasy. Zhdanov was a genuine hero to those involved in smallpox eradication. Could he also have been a bioweaponeer?
I obtained access to a heavily scored, almost illegible copy of a typed manuscript, a Department of Defense translation of a privately published Russian-language memoir by one of the designers of the former Soviet bioweapons program, Igor V. Domaradskij. Domaradskij had been deputy director of the Interagency Science and Technology Council on Molecular Biology and Genetics, the "brain center" -- as Domaradskij puts it -- of the entire Soviet program. This council designed the overall aims and methods of the Soviet bioweapons system. His manuscript identified a virologist, V. Zhdanov, as the committee's chair. I obtained Domaradskij's e-mail address and started corresponding with him.
Domaradskij confirmed that the great eradicator Victor Zhdanov was indeed the same man who had headed the interagency council of the Soviet bioweapons program. He told me much else as well. Apparently unworried about possible repercussions from the post-Soviet Russian government, and despite some official harassment, Domaradskij was willing to share his extensive knowledge of the Soviet bioweapons program with researchers and journalists. He shared a great deal of insight and information with me. In the course of our communication we agreed to rewrite his memoir in English and attempt to find a publisher. He sent me a Russian-language copy of his monograph Chuma, or Plague. This was also translated by the Department of Defense. Reading that book gave me my first glimpse of the obsession of many Russian bacteriologists with plague. They know it; they fear it; they made it -- as Domaradskij admits in his memoir, if not in his monograph -- into a terrifying weapon. Domaradskij's books, and our long communication, sent me on the track of plague, the world's deadliest bacterial disease, and also, to me, its most fascinating.
Domaradskij takes us to his home where he lives with his wife, the actress Svetlana Sergeevna Skortsova, still beautiful at seventy-two, their daughter Anna, and Anna's two teenaged sons. The apartment building is nondescript, even dirty, the elevator floor splashed and beaded with what looks suspiciously like dog urine. By the door in the hall an electrical wire box stands open, sprouting wires. But the flat itself, painted in soft, bright colors, coral, cream, yellow, and green, is filled with books, music, antique furniture, and paintings -- of a snow-blanketed village at sunset, an old hut, an impressionistic study of three women at a well. Atop a bookcase in Domaradskij's study is what looks like a large woodchuck, paws upraised as if to ward off some coming unpleasantness. It is a stuffed marmot given to Domaradskij when he left the Anti-Plague Institute at Irkutsk for another institute at Rostov, long before his work in biological weapons design ever began. That marmot has accompanied him for forty years in his travels. Marmots are a species famous for carrying plague in Mongolia and Siberia; they are the oldest known plague reservoir in the world.
Domaradskij says that he entered the world of biological weapons because he wanted the opportunity to "do science." But this is rather a pallid way of putting it. Talking to him, reading his memoir, you sense that what propelled Domaradskij is a passion deeper than a mere liking for his work. It is a passionate hunger for knowledge, but knowledge of a certain kind. Domaradskij's work was science as creation and destruction: the power to change living things, the power over life and death. Even Faust, or Mephistopheles, could wish for nothing more.
But there is nothing devilish about this kind and cultivated man. There is no aura of evil; there is nothing striking you see in his face at all, except the intelligence and will in those blue eyes.
Domaradskij spent twenty-three years in the anti-plague system of the Soviet Union, and retains his devotion to that system, whose tragic history under Stalinist terror he has done much to elucidate. Still, he used his knowledge to turn plague, and other diseases, into antibiotic-resistant biological weapons.
There is no point asking why, or demanding an accounting, or presuming to inquire how he could fight a pathogen for much of his life, and then work to make it even deadlier and more frightening. In his memoir Domaradskij says that he never accepted the arguments for the superior humanity of one weapon over another; in other words, he might as well have been contributing to the science behind better guns, or bombs, or missiles. He also insists that he and Zhdanov thought of their work as creating "strains, not weapons." To me, he remarks that the only cannons he's ever seen are in museums. In his mind, he is truly not a "biowarrior," the American title of his memoir: he did not work on the "black arts" of bioweaponization -- how to freeze-dry, stabilize, and aerosolize pathogens, or prepare them for loading into missiles.
Instead, Domaradskij solved some of the genetic mysteries of the plague germ both for the sake of the mysteries themselves, and for the secret purposes of the Soviet military. Somewhere, at some point in his life, Domaradskij crossed the bright line between studying disease and manipulating it. Now, with his repudiation of the Soviet system, his refusal to allow himself to be exploited by rogue nations (he recently refused an invitation to come to speak to scientists in Teheran "on principle"), and, most of all, his courageous willingness to tell the world what he and his colleagues have done, he has crossed it back again.
He now wants the world to know why plague is still a threat.
The day after we arrive, we go on a strange pilgrimage -- to the ground zero for plague weaponeering. Nickolai, husband of Domaradskij's youngest daughter, Anastasia, is driving; Domaradskij, sitting silently beside him, smokes cigarette after cigarette, occasionally opening the window so the smoke does not fill the car. Every so often he coughs, a deep rumbling smoker's cough. My husband and I are in the back seat. We look out at Moscow, vast, ornate, and dingy; bright with the gold-leaved cupolas of churches and streets of newly opened shops, bleak with enormous bedroom communities of gray apartment buildings with row upon row of small, dirty windows. They are like massive concrete bunkers littering much of the suburban landscape leading out of the city. Along the road to Obolensk, a full two-hour drive that Domaradskij used to make several times a week ("I liked to drive then," he says), we see endless vistas of birch and pine. Intermittently there are housing developments. Some of the homes are quite large, mostly made of painted wood, and seem dropped onto empty fields in random patterns. There doesn't seem to be any landscaping, any roads, or any order to these developments; the houses perch on the ground, like a child's toys scattered across a rug. There are also older, one-room peasant cottages in bright colors -- turquoise and pink and aqua -- among the birch trees by the roadside; but they are lazily decaying, slowly sinking into the earth.
Domaradskij tells us how he sometimes drove this road to Obolensk with Vladimir Pasechnik, once of the Institute of Ultra-Pure Preparations in Leningrad. Pasechnik, a biochemist, was well known in the West as the first Soviet defector to reveal the existence of the mammoth, top secret Soviet bioweapons program, whose existence was long suspected by Western intelligence, but impossible to prove. Pasechnik and Domaradskij, before the former's defection, had had "good relations": Domaradskij tells us that he and Paschenik, who loved music, liked to sing Russian folk tunes as they made the two-hour-long drive together to Obolensk.
When I tell him that I have heard that Pasechnik has recently died of a sudden heart attack, Domaradskij seems surprised. But he says nothing further.
After a long while we pass through Serpukhov, the nearest town to Obolensk. It is small and bleak. Domaradskij laughs. Nickolai explains: "In the town hall, he says there is a table bearing a plaque with his picture on it. The plaque is in honor of Domaradskij's contributions to developing better vaccines to improve animal health. There was no vaccine work: this was a legend created by the masters of Obolensk to cover up their real activities, which had nothing to do with animal (or human) health." We turn off to Protvino, a small community about sixteen kilometers from Obolensk, where Domaradskij lived during his years at Obolensk; he refused to live at Obolensk itself. Protvino is beside the Oka River, in a drier and more salubrious location than the boggy, marshy Obolensk, Igor tells us. Many scientists, including physicists from a nearby laboratory, live there. We drive up to the nine-story green-painted apartment building where he had stayed in a top-floor flat. Then we drive beside the woods where, in the winter, Domaradskij went cross-country skiing. Here, he wrote in his memoir, he first began to think about the "moral implications" of his work. I remind him of that. "What did you think?" I ask. We have never discussed this before, and driving through these old haunts seems as good a time as any.
"It didn't give him insomnia," Nickolai translates. "It wasn't a spiritual crisis or depression -- just thoughts."
"If you could change things, what would you do differently?" I persist.
"I would have run the lab at Obolensk the way Lev Sandakhchiev does," he replies. (Sandakhchiev is the director of Vector Laboratories -- where smallpox was once weaponized.) "Sandakhchiev knows how to run a lab and keep his people. The whole bioweapons program was an adventure, and nothing much ever came out of it."
The sixteen kilometers to Obolensk consist of birch trees, and more birch trees. Sergei Popov, a defector now in the United States, who had directed Domaradskij's laboratory after the latter left the institute, once described Obolensk as surrounded by deep and gloomy forest. Listening to him, I imagined massive trees: old-growth oak, beech, pine. But here at Obolensk the sun shines through the thin, low birches, packed together like stalks of tall grass, feathered at the top with branches not yet budding. The effect is light, but somehow dingy: grey soil, grey-brown branches, narrow trees with scabby white bark. These thin grey forests, which are as deep as time, are the haunts of moose and wolves.
"You saw it at the worst time," Popov tells me later; there was neither fresh snow to cover the bleakness, nor leaves on the trees. Popov is a tall, pleasant man of fifty-two, with reddish brown hair, direct brown eyes, a ready laugh and wide smile. But his face, in repose, is lined and weary.
Above the ground outside Obolensk run pipes coated in some silver covering, which in places is slipping off. There are no checkpoints, no obvious military presence, no sense that you are approaching a formerly secret bioweapons laboratory that, now in partnership with the United States's Cooperative Threat Reduction program, still houses some of the deadliest pathogens in the world: anthrax, tularemia, Q fever, plague -- many of these diseases genetically modified for vaccine and/or antibiotic resistance.
Domaradskij points out a building he identifies as Building Number One where he used to work. The building is a several-story ramshackle affair that looks like nothing so much as a slightly decrepit office building in a Third World country. This structure, which houses the most dangerous bacterial pathogens on earth, was specially designed to contain any outbreaks. Each floor is separate, Igor explains. If a breakout occurred, that floor would be completely sealed off -- even the elevators wouldn't stop there. The only way for scientists to leave would be to dive into a pool of disinfectant and swim out.
"To enter Obolensk, you had to strip, shower with disinfectant, and put on your lab gown," he tells us. Afterward, you go through the whole process in reverse. Every time.
I try to take a picture, but a car drives past and they ask me to wait until it's out of sight. Domaradskij says that you never see anyone in military dress, within or outside the building, but that he's been told that presently the building is guarded by agents of both the CIA and FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service.
We pass a new housing development on the left, the same large housing we've seen intermittently littering the landscape -- painted wood or stucco houses in pink and brown and red. One of the houses belongs to Major General Nickolai Urakov, Domaradskij's old enemy and the head of the institute at Obolensk. Other houses, they tell me, belong to his sons. "These homes were not allowed in Soviet times," Domaradskij says.
The large houses end -- we turn right, and come to a series of crumbling apartment buildings, built in the mid-1980s, which house Obolensk's "collaborators" -- the scientists who still work at the laboratory. The buildings are decaying, or perhaps were never finished: chunks of concrete are falling off, like flesh off a decaying corpse. There's a muddy road, surrounded on three sides by the birch scrubland, which circumnavigates the complex; we saw children throwing balls, mothers pushing heavy, old-fashioned prams, and young families plodding ahead on the muddy track along the roadside, apparently out for their Sunday walk; there is nowhere to go but around and around; nothing to see but the rotting buildings, one run-down shop for provisions, the unchanging scrub.
"It was so miserable to be a scientist in Russia, no money, no status," Popov says. He left Obolensk, and Russia, in 1992; it doesn't seem that much has changed.
Looking out at the complex now, Domaradskij says, "I do not feel one positive emotion, not a single good thing, coming back here again."
It is hard for the outsider to believe that this ramshackle complex, where everything seems at once unfinished and decaying, was the jewel in the crown of bacterial weapons research in Soviet times. Its location, remote and sylvan yet not too far from Moscow, was considered a benefit. To fool U.S. satellite intelligence, Obolensk was designed to look, from the air, like a sanatorium for convalescents, complete with volleyball courts.
Some of the brightest stars of Soviet science were brought here. Obolensk was a facility in the Biopreparat system, the network of biological weapons institutes supposedly under civilian control, but closely linked to the Soviet military. Under control of the Fifteenth Directorate of the Soviet army, Biopreparat scientists did the military's bidding, creating disease strains possessing the characteristics -- virulence, stability, antibiotic or vaccine resistance -- that the military demanded.
Ken Alibek, then known as Kanatjan Alibekov, a defector well known in the United States, was also once posted to Obolensk. At the height of his power, he served as deputy director of all of Biopreparat. He defected in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Alibek earned his principal fame from the Alibekov method of weaponizing anthrax. An adept in the black arts of bioweaponry, Alibekov was extensively debriefed by shocked U.S. scientists after his defection. Before Pasechnik defected in 1989, no one in the West had any idea of the full extent of the Soviet bioweapons program. But Alibek had a great deal more to tell the West; as Domaradskij says in his memoir, he knew even more than Pasechnik. First in his classified testimony, then in newspaper accounts (beginning in 1998), and finally in his book Biohazard, Alibek dragged out at least something of the closed world of Biopreparat into the light. Domaradskij's memoir illuminates the beginnings of that world, which began long before Alibek ever came on the scene.
Alibek tells me that Domaradskij never had any use for him. "When I was young, Domaradskij was very famous -- like a god to the younger scientists. He would look at me like I was nothing but empty space, like air." But Domaradskij and Alibek, though it was unacknowledged by either man, shared a certain outsider status among the Soviet scientific elite. Alibek was a Kazah, an ethnic group discriminated against by Russians; furthermore, his training had been at the remote laboratory at Omutninsk -- "out in the sticks," as Domaradskij puts it. But in the stratified world of the supposedly classless USSR, Igor Valerianovitch Domaradskij too came of a questionable background. The descendent of Polish immigrants on one side, and the grandson of a wealthy merchant who died in Stalin's prison camps on the other, Domaradskijwas a perennial outsider. Of this distinguished scientist, the widow of his former associate Victor Zhdanov once said to me, "Domaradskij! Who is he -- a nothing! He came from Saratov!" Unlike her husband the famous virologist, she insisted, Domaradskij was a provincial, and not from Moscow or St. Petersburg. While her comment illustrates the prejudices of the Soviet elite, she was actually wrong: Domaradskij was born in Moscow in 1925, and only consigned to the provinces with his family because his grandfather did not please the Bolshevik authorities. He grew up in the shadow of the Terror, and many members of his family died in the camps.
Enduring tyranny does not always make you a dissident, and holding outsider status doesn't always make you more sympathetic to those who share it with you. Despite a lingering distrust or even loathing of the system, Domaradskij wanted to rise within it, and to set the past behind him. By virtue of his intellect, ambition, and ferocious capacity for work, he became first a medical student and later a microbiologist. His doctoral thesis was, in his words, "sensational for the times" -- and earned him a post at the prestigious Mikrob Institute, the Anti-Plague Institute in Saratov, where he set to work on the genetics of the plague microbe. He was tasked with the problem of developing a rapid method for detection of plague germs -- his new method involved the use of phages, viruses that prey upon bacteria. Plague has its own phages: if the concentration of plague phages in a solution rises, then you know the solution contains plague.
In those days, he was a plague fighter, not a weaponeer. Yet the nature of scientific knowledge of plague is such that it can be used either for good or for evil. Not long after he discovered this method of detecting plague through plague phages, at the age of only thirty-one, he was offered the post of director of the Anti-Plague Institute in Irkutsk, Siberia. After some years he was offered another directorship, this time of the Anti-Plague Institute of Rostov. During his tenure at Rostov, Domaradskij first came to the attention of the Soviet Ministry of Health. Cholera broke out in the Karakalpakiya region of Uzbekistan, and a Rostov epidemic control team headed by Domaradskij was sent for to help control it. The deputy minister of health, A. I. Burnazyan, worked closely with Domaradskij and his team in the Karakalpakiya city of Nukus on containing the epidemic. In the heat and stench of their makeshift laboratories, amongst dishes spilling over with fecal samples, exposing them to the constant danger of infection, Domaradskij's team succeeded in identifying the particular strain of cholera that had broken out. His scientific success commended him to Burnazyan, as did his practical ingenuity. In order to grow colonies of cholera for identification and testing, Domaradskij needed a substance known as nutrient media. They always had it shipped from Rostov, but fresh nutrient media is perishable and it frequently spoiled in transmit. So Domaradskijdevised the means to produce it himself, using fresh meat and alcohol -- a process that took his team several days and attracted every chef in the area with the first-quality meat the government shipped in. Domaradskij also rigged up toilets to spray cooling jets of water over his sweltering staff, suffering from the fierce heat of Uzbekistan and the crowded, nightmarish conditions in their laboratories.
Burnazyan remembered the ingenious and dedicated young scientist, and, when Domaradskij was finally about to return home to Rostov, had him stopped at the Tashkent airport and ordered to fly directly to Moscow. There, Burnazyan stunned him with the announcement that he was to be appointed deputy minister of health himself! The appointment fell through -- Domaradskij was unceremoniously dropped in favor of one General P. N. Burgasov, a favorite of Stalin's chief henchman, Lavrenty Beria. Still, he had come to the attention of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
Meanwhile, under orders from Moscow, Domaradskij's Anti-Plague Institute at Rostov was shifting its emphasis from basic research to biological defense, an area of research the Soviets called Problem No. 5. Domaradskij developed a "dry" plague vaccine using a live strain of the disease. The Soviets frequently used live vaccine strains, which are more dangerous than the dead vaccines preferred in America, but which also frequently produce stronger immunity. Domaradskij's vaccine had the additional property of being able to withstand antibiotics, so that in an emergency it could be given concurrently with antibiotics. This was a salutary accomplishment, but there was more involved than mere prophylaxis. In order to develop an antibiotic-resistant strain of plague, Domaradskij and his team had first to understand how the plague bacterium handles new genetic information. They discovered that plasmids -- rings of extra DNA that float outside the bacterium's chromosome -- taken from certain intestinal bacteria such as the familiar E. coli, could be introduced into plague. Intestinal bacteria frequently pass such plasmids back and forth in their normal course of existence -- this is an important method by which bacteria acquire new properties, including antibiotic resistance. Domaradskij's achievement in introducing antibiotic-resistant plasmids into plague allowed production of a novel vaccine, but it also demonstrated what scientists call proof of principle. If antibiotic resistance could be introduced into a living vaccine strain of plague, it could be introduced into virulent plague as well.
Eventually, Domaradskij was pulled out of Rostov, which remained on the fringes of bioweapons research, into Moscow, the center. By the early 1970s, when Domaradskij began to drift into the closed world of secret science, that world was rapidly changing. In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon unilaterally shut down the U.S. biological weapons program. Three years later, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union as well as seventy-seven other countries. The United States indeed abandoned its program, not without the opposition of the CIA and the weapons scientists themselves. But the Soviet Union used the accord as a shield behind which they built a massive program, employing at its height perhaps thirty thousand people in dozens of secret laboratories, an empire of death that spanned the country.
Domaradskij had become well known to the powers-that-be. He was appointed by Yuri Andropov, general secretary of the Communist Party, and Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet president, as deputy chairman of the super-secret Interagency Science and Technology Council on Molecular Biology and Genetics. Zhdanov, the famous smallpox eradicator, was made chair. Domaradskij and Zhdanov were tasked with bringing the science of biological weapons into the modern age -- "to catch up and leave behind" any potential enemies. This involved the swift assimilation of the genetic discoveries in the West; to that end, Zhdanov and other top scientists (although not Domaradskij) were allowed to travel to the West and to mingle with Western scientists, in order to bring back as much scientific knowledge as possible. Western scientists apparently never suspected Zhdanov's secret identity as a bioweaponeer. William Foege, the Lasker Prize-winning scientist who invented the ring vaccination strategy that eventually eliminated smallpox from nature, remembers Zhdanov as "a grandfatherly figure who had the good of the world at heart."
In 1975, Domaradskij and Zhdanov developed a plan they labeled the Five Principal Directions, which established the future course of biological weapons research. Genetic modifications of existing strains were at the heart of this program: viruses and bacteria modified for greater virulence, stability, durability in the external environment, and genetic resistance to vaccines and antibiotics. In particular, they envisioned adding short chains of proteins, or peptides, to bacteria and viruses, which would create diseases with entirely new and different symptoms, and which would make the infections more difficult to treat. They planned to divide this work up among many different institutions, some of which would concentrate on basic research, and others which were assigned to work directly on dangerous infections. Chief among these laboratories were Vector and Obolensk.
Vector Laboratories, built by convict labor in 1974, is a gigantic complex about a half-hour drive from the western Siberian city of Novosibirsk. It is dedicated to research on viruses: before 1992, it was the USSR's principal fiefdom for bioweapons research on viruses. Obolensk was the chief bacteriological weapons laboratory. It was there that, by 1980, Domaradskij found himself. He had a laboratory in Moscow, where he carried out his early work on plague virulence. He had connections to the military laboratory at Kirov, which also specialized in dangerous bacteria. But as the centripetal force of bioweapons work began to pull Domaradskij closer and closer in, he found himself working at Obolensk, at the All-Union Institute of Applied Microbiology, as it was officially designated. Appointed science director of Obolensk in 1978, he only visited his family, and his laboratory at the Institute of Protein Synthesis, back in Moscow for three days every week.
At around this time, working in his own Moscow laboratory, Domaradskij made a major scientific discovery -- which was never published outside the closed world of the Biopreparat system. He and his team found that plague not only could accept foreign plasmids, but had three native plasmids of its own -- where most of the virulence factors are actually located. The discovery of plasmids was to revolutionize the study of plague -- but Domaradskij could not tell the world about it. This loss of "his priority," as he puts it, haunts him still. The distinguished American plague researcher Robert Brubaker and his colleague D. M. Ferber first published their own discovery of plague plasmids in 1981, three years afterward. Losing the freedom to publish in the open scientific literature was a price researchers in the closed world paid for their perks and privileges: their high status, their enormous salaries, their cars, their prestige. Even in remote Protvino, Domaradskij could shop in a special grocery for the elite, where soluble coffee, fresh fruit, even caviar could be had at a time when so many in the Soviet Union stood in lines for hours for a loaf of bread.
But at Obolensk itself, life never went easily for Domaradskij. His principal project was to develop an antibiotic-resistant strain of tularemia, as he had theorized for plague. Domaradskij discovered that adding antibiotic resistance disrupted the virulence of the tularemia germ. The military wing of the Soviet bioweapons program -- known colloquially if rather sinisterly at Biopreparat as "The Customer" -- rejected even a day's delay in the death of a test animal. The point of a weapons program is to enhance virulence, not to reduce it. So Domaradskij had to find a way around the problem, which he eventually did.
Tularemia, or rabbit fever, is a true zoonosis, a disease that comes from animals. Normally found in rabbits and rodents, it cannot transmit directly from human to human. The most virulent form, the so-called American strain, can kill 40 percent of its human victims; furthermore, it is not difficult to make the tularemia germ into a bioweapon, because it converts easily into a form that can be breathed in, and because only one or two germs produce infection. But producing antibiotic-resistant tularemia strains proved difficult; the strains rapidly lost virulence, and the more antibiotic resistance was added, the greater the problem became. Domaradskij proposed a solution: to pack two less-traumatized strains into a single weapon: each strain would only be made resistant to, say, five antibiotics, and they could be delivered together.
At the time Domaradskij came up with his binary solution, the laboratory was run by Major General Nickolai Urakov, a handsome, blunt officer of Estonian extraction. Urakov and Domaradskij clashed almost from the first. Urakov did not bother to listen; he atfirst dismissed this binary concept out of hand, though he was later to make extensive use of it himself.
In any event, Domaradskij's hard work on the genetics of tularemia was soon to be rendered irrelevant. Tularemia was merely a sideshow, a forerunner to the main action. Though it can be deadly, it is not a contagious disease. In the early days at Obolensk, biosecurity was poorly developed; there were tularemia accidents in the laboratory, though Domaradskij's own workers were not involved. The Ministry of Health refused at first to give the Obolensk administration permission to work with more dangerous infections such as plague until certain standards were met. By various manipulations and corner-cuttings General Urakov got the laboratories up to speed, though the actual security precautions were still woefully inadequate. The Ministry of Health gave him permission for plague research, and Domaradskij's tularemia project was dropped.
Plague has always been the favorite bacterial weapon of the Soviet military -- as Domaradskij puts it, after an initial bioweapons attack, "plague spreads from man to man, and further effort on the part of the military is not necessary." But Domaradskij was never allowed to work on virulent plague strains at Obolensk. Fierce, proud, and unwilling to grovel before a man he despised as a weak scientist and an arrogant, ineffective administrator, Domaradskij found himself in endless, relentless conflict with Urakov. They quarreled, first, over fundamental science. Domaradskij had always been a convinced Darwinian, a dangerous thing to be in the Soviet Union, first under Stalin, then under Khrushchev. For decades, biology in the Soviet Union had been mired in the swamp of Lysenkoism, a sort of Marxist evolutionism that spurned both natural selection and Mendelian genetics. Lysenkoists maintained that the environment could directly produce heritable changes in organisms. Domaradskij and Zhdanov, who never accepted Lysenkoist dogma, agitated for the development and modernization of molecular biology and genetics in the Soviet Union. But Urakov was a Lysenkoist holdover, which did not improve his ability to run a modern microbiology institute, and which led to endless quarrels.
Second, Urakov apparently did not care to learn anything about the virulence or transmissibility or other basic biological properties of the germs studied at his institute. He wanted weapons. He was quite explicit about it, "calling a spade a spade," says Domaradskij. They fought; one angry dispute followed another, and eventually, their superiors decided that the two bioweaponeeers could no longer work together. In 1987, Domaradskij left Obolensk, and eventually turned his back on Biopreparat altogether.
The Soviet Union, as an aggressive authoritarian state, was destined from the beginning to engage in bioweapons research. One afternoon in Domaradskij's study, he hands me a photograph of a commemorative plague with a series of Cyrillic names carved on it. These are the names, he tells me, of a few of the plague control scientists murdered in Stalin's purges. Domaradskij has done considerable digging to find out which scientists were murdered -- information difficult to obtain. Either the younger people at the present-day Anti-Plague Institute do not know the truth of their predecessors' fate, or they prefer not to know. Professor Skorodomoff, the first director of the Irkutsk Anti-Plague Institute, was arrested and murdered. Why? Nobody knows. One of the founders of the Saratov Mikrob institute, Professor Nikanorov, was twice arrested and finally shot. "It was a terrible, horrible system," says Domaradskij's friend Lev Melnikov. "The politics of Stalin was to make people scared -- people died for nothing, just to terrify other people."
Plague wasn't permitted to exist under the Stalinist regime. In the event of an outbreak, a commission, they tell me, was immediately sent to investigate it. In most cases, the commission would declare it to be "sabotage and diversion" -- in other words, the direct result of some sinister plot. "People were innocent, the epidemic happened by itself, but they found some person responsible for spreading the epidemic. They pretended that some person or other was responsible for spreading plague; according to what I heard, they arrested and killed him," explains Melnikov.
According to Domaradskij, a strange sort of "liberation" for scientists occurred under Stalin's NKVD director, Lavrenty Beria, the depraved Georgian who terrorized the streets of Moscow by kidnapping, raping, and murdering young women he happened to spot on the street. Beria apparently considered it a waste of valuable resources to shoot, strangle, or poison so many scientists: he decided to put them to work instead. A system of secret prison camps, called sharashki, was created, where the scientists would be set tasks according to their abilities and training. Many plague control specialists were thus suborned to work for the state: but it wasn't epidemic control, presumably, they were directed to work on. It's difficult to know what exactly they did, but Domaradskij makes it clear that many of these former plague control workers applied their knowledge to the fledgling bioweapons program.
Domaradskij was never suborned in this way: he had gone into the Biopreparat system "with his eyes open," as he admits in his memoir. But he is proud to have belonged to the long tradition of plague control in the Soviet Union. Lev Melnikov tells me, for his part, that he himself never left plague control, and never worked in any capacity for the biological weapons program. The exact truth is hard to determine. According to Domaradskij's memoir, Melnikov was his Biopreparat "guardian angel," attached to the secret service. They conducted experiments together. But Melnikov explains that he was only attached to Biopreparat by assignment from the Ministry of Health, where he worked in accident prevention.
Like Domaradskij, Melnikov is a cultivated man, with an especial love of art and poetry. He grew up, like his friend, in Saratov, where they both worked at the Saratov Mikrob institute. His background touches on another reason the Soviets were born to research plague: the territorial USSR included one of the world's most virulent reservoirs of the disease. One evening at his apartment he tells me the story of a huge, almost unknown pneumonic plague outbreak that he himself witnessed in Turkmenistan, in the years 1949-1950. First, there was a huge earthquake, and then a great outbreak of plague. According to official Soviet sources, Melnikov says, only ten people died. "By my estimation, it was up into the hundreds."
"At that time there was an unusually numerous population of a rodent called Rhombomys opimus [the great gerbil] -- it's the size of a rat, but there are some differences. This rodent forms big colonies underground. The Turkmen are nomads; they wander through the desert with their camels and their cattle, and they sleep in the sand." When plague strikes a colony of great gerbils, the fleas peculiar to the gerbils start to migrate and look for other hosts: they will bite other rodents, cattle, or human beings who might be sleeping nearby.
Melnikov, a white-haired, slightly stocky man with a wide smile showing silver teeth, was a young doctor at the time, only twenty years old. He was part of an expedition from the Saratov Anti-Plague Institute sent in to cope with the epidemic. "There was a special flight plane from Baku over the Caspian Sea, to the Afghan border. The sand was burning -- you could boil an egg in it. It was 100 degrees Centigrade in the sand. The desert is deadly -- it is only big dunes and saxaul trees" -- bare and twisted shrubs that grow in the Central Asian desert.
"At the same time, some army units also took part in coping with the epidemic -- they made a fence and guarded, blocked the infected sites. The army also had brought their specialists, but they did not dare to go to the local place where the sick were. So my friend and I -- now he is dead, we were both young specialists then -- we went alone. We put on special clothing -- two overcoats, white overcoats. Thick masks, eyeglasses like motorcycle protective glasses, shawl-like covering, cap, rubber boots, apron, and gloves. The whole bag of instruments and everything, which we carried about one kilometer. People would not approach and bring us nearer -- but we were young and we didn't care. We went to the encampment, which consisted of three large yurts."
The yurts, the large, round felt portable dwellings used by nomads in Central Asia, as they approached were completely silent. No voices, no running footsteps, no wailing of mourners or groaning of the sick. In tent after tent they saw only the silent, abandoned bodies of the dead.
In the entire encampment not one person was alive.
Melnikov believes that the epidemic began when a nomad hunter caught the infection from the great gerbils, by sleeping in the sand among the rodent colonies, where he must have been bitten by fleas. The nomad came to an encampment where he fell ill; by the time his relatives arrived for him his disease had spread to the lungs and become pneumonic. He infected them all before his death. Each one of his relatives, returning home, caused a new outbreak of pneumonic plague.
The army fell back on devices that had been used since medieval times: a strict quarantine was imposed on the Turkmen in the area. And the appurtenances of plague control -- the two overcoats and the white robe over that, the masks, the gloves, the goggles -- all suggest a more modern version of the plague doctor's robes in the Renaissance: the fine waxed cloth robe from head to toe, the queer long beak stuffed with spices.
"When we arrived the disease was still increasing in numbers. The precautions we took were extraordinary. The dead were burned -- I am witness to this. But it was a problem -- we were in the desert. There was no forest, not much wood. The military doctors said, 'Put all the bodies together with some logs, and burn everything up, together with the yurts.'" They had to bring in a big truck with oil and burn it up, to set the bodies and the yurts on fire.
With the dead stacked like logs, the black felt yurts, the deep ditch the bodies had been flung into, and the bright flames climbing into the night, it must have been a scene reminiscent of the Middle Ages. When he talks of it, you can still feel Melnikov's horror.
To commemorate the work of the plague fighters he had known, Melnikov wrote a poem that he asks me to put in English. An excerpt:
To risk death in half-deserted aouls,
To travel through the wilderness, the desert, where nothing grows but black saxaul,
Who constantly keeps watch for plague, smoldering like banked embers,
Who knows the hidden lives of innumerable rodents?
Fighting the deadly plague, it is your obligation,
You have met it face-to-face, and more than once.
These, then, are the two faces of plague work in Russia, the plague fighters, who endured torture, imprisonment, slaughter by bandits, and the threat of the disease itself (not a few of them died of it) -- and the plague engineers, those who worked to make plague an armament. Sometimes these two faces belong to the same person.
Domaradskij feels that plague is the only bacterial disease, besides anthrax, that represents a significant bioterrorist threat. Anthrax is dangerous because it is both lethal and durable: anthrax spores -- little envelopes impervious to many environmental conditions like heat, cold, humidity, and drying -- can contaminate an area, perhaps for generations. Since the mysterious anthrax attacks in late September 2001 in the United States, we have seen how easily anthrax contamination can spread throughout a building, and how difficult it is to remove the spores or decontaminate the area. But anthrax does not spread. You cannot catch it from another person, probably because anthrax is not a true pulmonary infection. It can seed itself in the lungs, but soon it moves to the lymph nodes and the chest. You can't cough it out in a contagious form: coughing produces big droplets, which can't be inhaled, and the bacteria in any event are in the vegetative -- growing -- state and are not infectious. Only the spores are infectious.
Plague is a very different disease from anthrax: the chief danger from plague, aside from its lethality, is its ability to spread. Unlike anthrax, it grows in the lungs; it produces infected sputum; it is coughed out and transmitted from person to person, lung to lung. Coated in some manner, it becomes more stable in the external environment: not so stable as anthrax, but stable enough. Plague germs coated with sputum, as they naturally are when they are coughed out, can last for weeks on many surfaces under certain conditions and remain infectious; plague in a frozen corpse can remain alive almost indefinitely.
Taking us on the subway back to our hotel from Domaradskij's flat, Melnikov says to me, "You must tell the American people about plague -- you must scare them. Convince the American specialists that it is contagious -- we know it. I have seen it with my own eyes."
Copyright © 2004 by Wendy Oren